John Gunter, who has died aged 77, nine years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was responsible for the look of some of the most memorable shows in postwar British theatre: Edward Bond’s stark, poetic and brutal Saved (1965) at the Royal Court, the DH Lawrence trilogy at the same theatre in 1968, Richard Eyre’s glorious 1982 revival of Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre (the stage was a riot of neon-lit Broadway billboards and adverts), and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989), starring Peter O’Toole, at the Apollo in the West End.
In the last of these, the titular character woke at five in the morning in his preferred Soho hostelry, the Coach and Horses, and Gunter’s lovingly accurate interior tilted on a diagonal axis, as if seriously hung over itself and sleepily prepared to entertain O’Toole’s antics and memories. Gunter specialised in such architectural feats. He was a past master at putting houses, contraptions or edifices on the stage: David Storey’s The Contractor (1970) at the Court featured a huge tent that was erected, decorated and then dismantled over three acts; the whole of Bath filled the Olivier stage for the NT’s revival of The Rivals in 1983, each character’s house emerging from the stone facade of the Royal Crescent; and in Trevor Nunn’s 1986 Glyndebourne production of Porgy and Bess, the teeming world of Catfish Row poured through the ramshackle, transparent remains of an 18th-century colonial mansion.
Gunter was the younger son of Herbert Gunter, a popular GP in Billericay, Essex, and his wife, Charlotte, an actor. John was educated at Bryanston school in Dorset and, after showing an aptitude for drawing and making model aeroplanes, was encouraged by his mother to apply to the Central School of Art and Design in London. On graduating, his first job was making costumes for The Rivals at the Belgrade theatre in Coventry. He followed a stint of making birdcages and copper fruit trees for antique shops with further spells in rep at Hornchurch and the Bristol Little theatre, before winning a competition and joining the Royal Court as resident designer in 1965.
It is hard to think of a designer who consistently created such a world of serious pleasure for the spectator. And yet Gunter emerged at the rigorously austere Royal Court – where the governing, Brechtian aesthetic was that of putting an actor, and other less animate objects, on the stage, before any scenery. At the head of a group of similarly talented colleagues – John Napier, William Dudley, Hayden Griffin and the costume designer Deirdre Clancy – Gunter went on to design 28 Court productions, including Heathcote Williams’s counter-culture classic AC/DC, Christopher Hampton’s box-office smash The Philanthropist, David Hare’s Slag and John Osborne’s West of Suez. He quickly acquired an international reputation and, after spending four years as resident designer at the Zurich Schauspielhaus (1970-73), returned to pursue a freelance career in London, New York and many opera houses.
Gunter had been in Vancouver with the Mermaid theatre in 1967 when he met Micheline McKnight, a New York-born dancer with Glen Tetley’s company, and they married in 1969; she came with him to London and danced with Robert Cohan’s new London Contemporary Dance theatre. Gunter’s first design for the National was for Michael Rudman’s 1979 revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Warren Mitchell, at the Lyttelton. But the Olivier auditorium was his true domain. Guys and Dolls and The Rivals were still in the repertory when a third great city design hit the Olivier stage: a turbulent, revolutionary Florence in Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio was conjured with huge statues, sweeping curtains, ladders and scaffolding. Then, for Michael Frayn’s gorgeous rewrite of Anton Chekhov’s Platonov as Wild Honey (1984), he provided four immaculate, atmospheric settings including the terrifying sight of an onrushing train.
This rich vein of work was shared with the Royal Shakespeare company for which, in 1981, he set Nunn’s beautiful 19th-century All’s Well That Ends Well (with Peggy Ashcroft making her last stage appearance as the Countess) in a gigantic conservatory. He also spread David Edgar’s political epic, May Days (1983), with some flourish across the Hungarian uprising, an English university and Greenham Common. He designed Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring and Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff for Peter Hall at Glyndebourne in the 1980s and opened the new house on the Sussex Downs with designs for The Marriage of Figaro in 1994. At the Royal Opera House he designed Simon Boccanegra and – one of his personal favourites – The Flying Dutchman.
A lot of his opera work was in Germany, but there were also designs for English National Opera at the Coliseum, including a rare revival in 2006 of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love with a delightful, twisting configuration of Tudor houses in the shadow of Windsor Castle. His last theatre designs were for the Peter Hall company over several seasons, a meticulous Peter Gill revival of Osborne’s second play, Epitaph for George Dillon, starring Joseph Fiennes and Anne Reid, at the Comedy in 2005 and a monolithic slab of ecclesiastical grey stone for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt at the Tricycle, north London, in 2007.
After his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Gunter was encouraged by his doctors to continue drawing and making sculptures, and these comprised an exhibition at Lauderdale House in Highgate, north London, in 2012. His love of music was enduring; his nominated luxury on Desert Island Discs in 1983 had been “more William Walton” and he took pleasure latterly in the work of Philip Glass and John Adams.
He is survived by Micheline, their daughters, Jessica and Nicolette, five grandchildren and his brother, William.
• John Forsyth Gunter, born 31 October 1938; died 22 March 2016